Opinion » Editorial

The real work is still ahead of us...



It seems to be a universal truth that voters don't really see the connect between no tax increases and cuts to services.

In today's world it is very difficult to maintain levels of taxation without looking for savings elsewhere — and that usually means cutting services or staff.

Sometimes this painful reality can be avoided if new sources of revenue can be found, or if growth is on the books, but in this day and age neither of those things can be counted on for the most part for either the private or public sectors.

I've been prompted to think about this as residents react to cuts to services in Whistler — for example to transit service and to grooming on some trails at Nicklaus North. Many more are also part of the just completed service review — a report we still don't the final cost of despite repeated requests for the information.

The message for the year leading up to our last election was to stop spending and start saving money so local taxes wouldn't go up any more.

Part of this complicated equation has also been the fact that the Long Term Financial Plan, developed in 2009, recommended that contribution to reserves — in essence the muni's bank account — be increased after falling off in previous years.

Council of the day took that recommendation to heart and approved year-over-year tax increases from 2009 to 2011 in part to get reserve payments back up to about 19 per cent. That's roughly $6.3 million of tax money, out of the $33 million that's collected from property taxes, that goes into savings.

When asked last month about raising taxes for savings, out-going Mayor Ken Melamed said: "This is not about popularity.

"The role of an elected official is to do what's best for the community. What's best for the community is to keep costs as low as possible while respecting the long-term need. You need to do what's right, not what's good for you."

This can be a very unpopular place to be — we have witnessed voters flock to candidates who proposed during their campaign that there would be no increases to property taxes, fees or charges in 2012 and a return to free parking in the majority of the day lots.

Time will tell whether these commitments can be kept.

One can't help but think of what is going on in Toronto right now in contemplating the teeter-totter of local government financial planning.

In the lead up to Toronto's municipal elections in 2010 voters heard three key phrases from Rob Ford, the man they would elect into power: "respect for taxpayers," "stop the gravy train," and "services will not be cut, guaranteed."

This week voters in Toronto learned that if the proposed budget for 2012 is adopted taxes would go up 2.5 per cent and a myriad of service cuts were coming including closing community pools, cutting library hours, cutting student nutrition programs, police department layoffs, reduced snow clearing and street sweeping, the elimination of 2,000 daycare subsidies and the reduction of staff by 2,300 (many of the positions being cut are vacant).

Not surprisingly some voters were angered by Ford's proposal and spoke out at a recent council meeting before being removed.

But really, how is government today supposed to hold the line on taxes if not through cuts? If people want no new taxes, then everyone has to accept that services are likely going to be cut. And many believe Ford's budget is a good one.

Sanford Borins, a University of Toronto management professor told the Toronto Star recently, though, that Ford faced with the reality of a big deficit and little "gravy," now says property taxes might rise three per cent next year — above inflation — and that a steep hike in user fees is on the table.

"We have a mayor who's going to be retreating on his promise and, lo and behold, raise taxes and fees, and impose real service cuts," Borins told the paper.

"I guess his hope is that three years from now, when the next election comes, people will forget."

That's not good enough for Whistler. The community needs to think about what our priorities are, and how do we communicate them to those we have put in power? Residents can't just vote then turn away from the political process. If we do, we deserve whatever we get.